Need for new research drives PhD students to final frontier and beyond

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The Independent Online

The number of doctors in Britain is soaring, according to new figures, but their qualifications are in subjects as diverse as Dr Who, Indian restaurants and cycling in Nottingham rather than medicine.

The number of doctors in Britain is soaring, according to new figures, but their qualifications are in subjects as diverse as Dr Who, Indian restaurants and cycling in Nottingham rather than medicine.

Britain's booming university sector is now bringing entirely new dimensions to academic study. Dissertations recently completed or still in painstaking preparation include: "A comparative study of Milton Keynes and Islamabad", "An ethnographic study of working-class responses to Elvis Presley", and "The effects of gender on sensory awareness of potato chips".

Thanks to vital studies such as these, record numbers of PhDs are now being turned out by universities, and it is estimated that 80,000 students in the UK - about 5 per cent of the higher-education population - are currently studying for a research doctorate.

The increase in PhD students means researchers are increasingly desperate to find areas that have not been studied before. A new database on PhD dissertations shows the variety of subjects registered by arts and social science researchers in academia over the past few years.

There are, for example, a dozen studies on various aspects of Star Trek, including "The meaning of race in the new generation of Star Trek", "Star Trek as cultural text", and "To Boldly Go: a hyper-modern ethnography of Star Trek fans' culture and communities of consumption".

There is at least one doctorate based on Dr Who, 10 on horror movies and several on The Beatles and Elvis. Cliff Richards has so far escaped academic attention, but there are more than 20 rock and roll doctors. There are six on Margaret Thatcher, three on vampires and 12 on comedians, including, "Personal coping techniques of 20 aspiring comedians".

Two people, one at the Open University and one at Nottingham, have carried out PhD research based on aspects of Milton Keynes. The condition of Glasgow buses also inspired a doctorate.

One of the advantages to universities of the increasing numbers is that they can attract research funding for the students. Another is that PhD students often teach several hours a week as well.

"One of the things you have to do with a PhD is to come up with new knowledge,'' says Philip Raynor, who is currently at Cardiff University immersed in researching the pre-Jimmy Young era of the BBC Light Programme, the glory days of Dick Barton.

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